Lights, Camera, Action!

From Art Journal 71, no. 4 (Winter 2012)

Eva Badura-Triska, Hubert Klocker, editors. Vienna Actionism: Art and Upheaval in 1960s Vienna. Cologne: Walther König, 2012. 416 pp., 1,400 color and b/w ills. $95

Should we judge a book by its cover? The image on the front of the massive new publication on a taboo-breaking group of Austrian postwar artists shows a crowd of people gazing, some with obvious disapproval, into the camera. Among them we see policemen —something has happened or is about to, a crime perhaps—but we cannot see what has given rise to the incident. The focus on shock value, refracted through the eyes of a hostile public, reveals the principal means by which Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Hermann Nitsch, and Rudolf Schwarzkogler have been canonized: all were violent dissenters from the standstill of an Austrian postwar society unable or unwilling to deal with its Fascist past. The Actionists (a term coined in a 1970 publication entitled Bildkompendium Wiener Aktionismus und Film) confronted this society with themselves; their performances involved excrement, blood, self-mutilation, sex, vomit, and pseudoreligious ritual, and were regularly interrupted by the police. In the cover photo, we see the reactions of Viennese men and women, but no artist’s action; the photo records the first police intervention into Actionism, provoked by the 1963 Festival of Psycho-Physical Naturalism held in the cellar on Perinetgasse that served as the group’s semiprivate action space. “The rats were our audience,” reminisces Brus.1.] The photo suggests otherwise.

The cover of the authoritative new publication by the Museum of Modern Art Vienna (MUMOK) continues an infamous and legendary local reception of the Actionists extending back to period journalism. But this is only half the story. As it asserts the “authentic presence” of an audience at the scene of the crime, the photograph brings with it problems central to the recent study of ephemeral art: how do post-factum documents (re)present radical action, and how does action, turned into image, stand in relation to its initial historical task? The question is particularly poignant for the Actionists, whose synaesthetic events combined touch, smell, and sight. The book takes a firm, perhaps surprising, stance on the question. Coeditor and curator Eva Badura-Triska, the leading museum specialist on Actionism, insists throughout her many short contributions to the book on the close connection between Actionism and painting, and correspondingly, on the careful orchestration of the group’s photographic output, much of which she reads in terms of the construction of painterly surfaces.

There are good reasons to treat Actionism as expanded painting: the members were painters early on, and painting was a subject of much of their writing (the authors point out that they never wrote a manifesto together); there are obvious analogies to Abstract Expressionism and its radicalization in nouveau réalisme and the work of the Japanese collective Gutai, familiar since the 1998 exhibition and catalogue Out of Actions; and there are painterly relics produced by the group’s Malaktionen (“paint-actions”).2 The strength of this approach is that it pays close attention not just to works committed to the dynamic extension of easel painting, but also to the cross-media collages made by the core Actionists and their new-media colleagues, from photographs, film, relics, and props, to a graphic production of posters, brochures, self-published leaflets, and manifestoes to rival Fluxus. Finally, this approach regards the notations, sketches, and chapbooks used to plan and interpret actions (some unexecuted) as genuine Actionist practice. The first impression is bracing and refreshing, the book both ambitious and broad in coverage. Badura-Triska’s entries leave no doubt as to the reversal of priorities from an expansive definition of art back to painting, however expanded. “In the end all this relates to the understanding of the action as a new extended form of painting,” she writes in the essay on staged photography, which for her is one route among many to “images” (96). Likewise, Hubert Klocker concentrates on “artworks in the context of the action.” The editors thus incorporate the Actionists into a mainstream history of Austrian art, which has always employed scandal in pursuit of overwhelming pictures—Egon Schiele, Richard Gerstl, and Gustav Klimt are cited—but this also has a taming effect. The disruptive, even destructive Marcusian or Artaudian moment of direct encounter and acting-out of suppressed desire¾illusory, perhaps, but certainly a concern of the members (explicitly of the younger theorists of the group, Peter Gorsen and Peter Weibel)¾disappears. This leaves arguments made elsewhere in the book, that the Actionists were socially and politically radical, peculiarly vulnerable.

The editors are right that Actionist photos are carefully orchestrated, and they are not alone in thinking so; the photos are being reread in this way internationally, for instance, in the 2011 exhibition Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. I also agree that there is a continuum between such documents and the objects produced before and during the performances (and after, for that matter). It is fascinating to see the contact prints with ballpoint marks for cropping, and an essay by Marie-Therese Hochwartner unearths typewritten drafts, sketches, and actual scores. But with the concept of painting and museological art history in mind, problems arise: in the end, not every stream of piss is a two-dimensional stroke in a formal composition. If it were, new and uncomfortable questions would arise. Are the Actionists, who did not enjoy financial success at first, mere museum art, and if so, can we accept their social claims unmodified, as the present book continues to do? The opposition between action and museum is artificial, I admit, but a question remains: how to read documents initially met under the rubric of ephemeral action once they are in books, collections, and generally on the market?

Given the book’s size, it might come as a surprise that its scope is restricted, as its subtitle promises, to the 1960s. That decision has consequences. On the bright side, it allows for detailed and excellent historical research into these most fruitful years, particularly Badura-Triska and Klocker’s almost one-hundred-page-long “action chronology, 1960–75” (the latter date a rare exception to the 1970 limit), filled with facts that will certainly make it a reference point for subsequent scholars. It also grants a solid grounding to nonexperts, with a helpful “Who’s Who” at the end of the book and much space devoted to the reconstruction of key actions, such as Art and Revolution (1968), the Actionists’ most notorious event; planned as a discussion by the socialist Austrian student union, it turned into an anarchist mix of harangue and scatology and sparked a press storm. Brus and Muehl were tried as public nuisances and for degrading state symbols (Brus sang the national anthem while masturbating) and received sentences of four weeks and six months, respectively.

Meticulous handling of the sources should make future research more accurate, but the authors stay very close to the four protagonists, and, ultimately, to home. A lot could be said fifty years on about the group’s international allegiances and reception, what its members went on to do, and whom else they provoked. In recent decades, most obviously related is perhaps abject art’s examination of the body as fragile, mutilated, fragmented, sick. A response to the AIDS crisis and identity politics foreign to the Actionists, abject art ironically elevated them into forerunners and smoothed their entrance into institutions as unlikely as the Louvre (the exhibition La Peinture comme crime, 2001). Formally, Muehl’s 1966 Materialaktion (discussed on 111) presages Cindy Sherman’s disjointed limbs so precisely that one has to wonder what she knew of Actionism. Such links to the present go unexamined. There is discussion of peers and predecessors such as Georges Mathieu and John Cage, but they are handled cautiously, by citing exhibitions that were available to the Actionists. One could be freer, and more clear, given some striking resemblances: Schwarzkogler’sblue monochromes, applied to his own body and other matter, require more than a mention of his admiration for Yves Klein (87). Carolee Schneemann, whose work was not unknown in Austria at the time, might have illuminated the ambivalent gender relations and acting-out of libido within Actionism. Nitsch attended the Spring Arts Festival of the University of Cincinnati in April 1968, and might have learned something about symphonic avant-gardism from Charlotte Moorman. Even though some direct contacts are unearthed (Klocker’s “Collaborations and Factions” discusses mostly Austrian, and some international, collaborations), there is no attempt to place the Actionists within an international framework. More engagement with the international avant-garde could also bring into sharper focus the political and psychological stakes of Actionism. Take Adrian Henri’s skepticism in his 1974 publication on Total Art: “Is the work of Mühl, Brus and Nitsch an elaborate act of self-abasement for the sins of their fathers, or merely an echo of the hideous Nazi ethos?”3 One would expect contemporary scholarship to make an effort to answer such questions¾or at least be aware that they were being posed.

Even if the late 1960s are the book’s end point—a natural choice given Nitsch’s and Brus’s relocation to Germany, Muehl’s concentration more on the merging of art with life in his commune projects, and Schwarzkogler’s fall to death from his apartment window in 1969—the contemporary view of Actionism is still shaped by our present: not just present concerns in the art world, but our understanding of the past. This is evident both in the editors’ method and the resources at their disposal, namely the extensive Actionist holdings at MUMOK. Friedrichshof, the commune Muehl set up on a farm south of Vienna just after the story of our book ends, has shaped the reception of Actionism not only because of the statutory rape trial that ended with Muehl sentenced to seven years in prison in 1991, but also because the communards collected early works of Actionism in the 1980s with money won on the stock market. The art market is hardly mentioned, which seems a missed opportunity: during the 1980s, with growing recognition and prices, new and interesting issues enter the discussion, from the conservation and archiving of organic matter to the display and cataloguing of actions. Ultimately, these questions concern the art-historical framing of an output far more heterogeneous than painting (even expanded painting).

As a scholarly argument, the focus results in some reshuffling of the premises of Actionist art history. The essays insist on differences among the four members, solidly brought out even at the high tide of their collaborative activities. Particular aspects of their multimedia work get their due, such as music (in an essay by Christian Höller), psychoanalysis, language (both by Kerstin Barnick-Braun), theater (Thomas Eder, Brigitte Marschall), film (Gabriele Jutz), and even architecture (Badura-Triska). Some Actionist stereotypes are also confronted: notably, the image of the four male protagonists as aggressive misogynists is questioned. According to the editors, they “raised the issue of female bodily experience” (11). But this, even if true, is not incompatible with misogyny. Johanna Schwanberg, who contributes two short essays on the models and actors and on gender relations, voices reservations about the hierarchical nature of the Actionists’ ideas of sexual liberation (particularly Muehl’s), but shifts responsibility to the “historical situation” and the “slow rise of the emancipation movement in Vienna” (204). Despite the destabilizing of gender roles in Brus’s Transvestite Action (1967) or in Nitsch’s preference for male models, female experience enters Actionism mainly through the persons of the female participants, who are not conceived as producers. There is a reason Valie Export invented her concept of “feminist Actionism” from dissatisfaction with the group; according to members of the commune, Muehl outspokenly dismissed homosexual practices. He in particular emerges as a flat impresario of male fantasy; watching, in a suit, two women act out what he describes as “lesbian love” (Friedl Muehl and Henny Petri in the performance photograph of Cosinus Alpha, 1964), or wrapping up nude models in Destruction of a Female Body (1964). An interesting ambiguity should not escape us here: in their destruction of ideals, the Actionists did little to displace these ideals themselves. So Muehl’s typewritten declaration that he sought to destroy all “ideologies . . . institutions and monuments” is itself a monument of avant-gardist self-staging, and should be read as such (78).

Compared to earlier books on or by the Actionists, the photographic content is without explicit sexual provocations. Klocker and Badura-Triska are responsible for the most significant anthologies prior to this, with the exception of the classic that inaugurated Actionism as a named movement, Weibel and Export’s Bildkompendium (1970).4 The “image-compendium,” both archive and eulogy, contained meticulous lists of actions, events, police interventions, and manifestoes, but it also tried to confer the shock value in the images—close-ups of genitals and sex acts were presented without captions under the instructive umbrella of “pictures” of Actionism. Vienna Actionism differs in its rigorous scholarship, and offers the first overview of Actionist activities in chronological order (not by individual artist). One would have wished for some voices from outside the Viennese circle, not instead of, but in addition to the knowledge of the included authors. As it is, a more detached evaluation and discussion of Actionism’s international context awaits scholarship, which will no doubt be aided and provoked by this book.


Mechtild Widrich is postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture at ETH Zurich. She has published in Grey Room, PAJ, Log, and Thresholds. Her article on the audience in Viennese Actionism appeared in TDR 217 (February 2013) and a reconsideration of the group’s aesthetic values can be found in Ugliness: The Non-Beautiful in Art and Theory,
which she edited with Andrei Pop (London: Tauris, 2013).

  1. Günter Brus, Das gute alte Wien (Salzburg and Vienna: Jung and Jung, 2007), 154 [my translation
  2. See Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949–1979, ed. Paul Schimmel, exh. cat. (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998). The exhibition took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Hubert Klocker wrote the catalogue entry on Viennese Actionism.
  3. Adrian Henri, Total Art: Environments, Happenings, and Perfomance (New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1974), 169.
  4. Peter Weibel, in collaboration with Valie Export, Bildkompendium Wiener Aktionismus und Film (Frankfurt: Kohlkunstverlag, 1970).